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Becoming Our ‘Best Selves’:

Whatever happened to just letting be?

The F-Word

Fielding reader outrage over Kelly Clarkson’s shameless slimming on the September cover of Self, Editor-in-Chief Lucy Danzinger crafted an online retort. After insisting that cover shots on her monthly glossy are fastidious constructions—products of “art, creativity, and collaboration”—rather than documentary snapshots, she proceeded to distinguish between journalistic “news photographs” and other images, like Clarkson’s, that “inspire women to want to be their best.” “Did we publish an act of fiction? No,” Danzinger asserted. “Not unless you think all photos are that. But in the sense that Kelly is the picture of confidence, and she truly is, then I think this photo is the truest we have ever put out there on the newsstand.”

According to Danzinger’s diagnosis, Clarkson suffers from a brand of bipolar disorder: Her external self, marred by unsightly bulk, both obscures and undermines her inner self, which is effervescent, confident, and considerably slimmer. Thin on the inside, heavy on the outside, Clarkson’s appearance must be altered to evoke her “truest” inner essence. While truth generally refers to an objective, verifiable (or, at least, not unverifiable) fact, Danzinger’s bizarre definition conflates truth with artfulness, alteration, and artificial reality. In Danzinger’s logic, manipulating Kelly’s cover shot with computer software only makes her look more like herself—or rather, more like her “best self.” Here, the camera does not capture reality: It manufacturers its own, transforming Clarkson into the imitation of some other, skinnier person.

It’s difficult to believe that Danzinger actually believes her own doublespeak. “Whether she is up or down in pounds is irrelevant,” she stresses; yet, the cover’s Photoshop crash diet affirms just the opposite. Clarkson’s weight is eminently relevant—so relevant, in fact, that by Danzinger’s account, an untoned tummy will not only prevent the magazine from selling, but, more disturbingly, will forestall the revelation of Clarkson’s “spirit” and “personality.” Inner beauty, it seems, is conditioned on outer beauty; lacking the latter, the former becomes inconsequential. The text on the cover—“Stay True to You and Everyone Else Will Love You, Too!”—only exacerbates the irony of the accompanying image and Danzinger’s equivocations. Extolling Clarkson’s inner virtues, Danzinger’s words ring hollow when compared with the magazine’s actions, which expose the superficial as all-important and all there is.

Clarkson’s slim down, though significant, remains restrained, at least relative to her airbrushed counterparts. Take, for example, a Ralph Lauren ad, run in Japan this fall, which features model Filippa Hamilton, her waist truncated to a grotesque extreme. So obviously distorted, the image becomes comical; it is difficult to imagine a viewer mistaking Hamilton’s form, stretched and squeezed to impossible proportions, for anything but a caricature of the feminine. The image’s shock derives not from the revelation that the culture industry fetishizes female thinness—that, unfortunately, is old news—but that it has assumed such consummate control over the definition of the female body, to the point where even the absurdly artificial is marketed as natural and ideal.

In the space of the cover shot and the advertisement, the subject has lost control over her own image. Imagistic distortion has become so normalized that unaltered photographs now run with special headlines, reinforcing the status of the non-airbrushed as an aberration. That the camera can serve as an instrument of fakery and fraud should not come as a surprise. Combined with our ability to laugh at Hamilton’s fun-house form, opining on irresponsible Photoshopping feels a bit overdrawn. The crux of the problem, however, lies not in extreme examples—here, the illusion is obvious—but in more discrete imagings, like Self’s September cover. Such subtle alterations, inconspicuous enough to pass as sincere, have profound implications, both for our sense of ourselves and for our sense of the real.

Indeed, although viewers can easily dismiss Hamilton’s head-to-waist ratio as obscene, Clarkson’s retouching toes a decidedly finer line. The cover shot exploits photography’s promise of absolute transparency, passing off a visual chimera—half-human, half-computer—for the real deal; Danzinger’s admission, of course, only followed in the wake of controversy. The image, in fact, seems more accurately classed as a painted portrait than a photograph. Yet, while the viewer approaches the former with suspicion, understanding its status as a selective idealization of reality, the latter medium demands the viewer’s complete credulity. While Danzinger acknowledges that the image is artful—the product of good lighting, stylized poses, and an ever-euphemistic “postproduction process”—she neglects to mention that this artfulness is masquerading as authenticity.

As graphic artist Barbara Kruger enjoins over a photograph of a woman’s face, fragmented in the reflection of a shattered mirror, “you are not yourself”—a caption seemingly readymade for Clarkson’s cover and Hamilton’s advertisement. Reality, it seems, sells neither magazines nor designer jeans. Female consumers desire products that promise to improve upon their biological givens, even if the standard to which they aspire is unrealistic or, worse yet, consciously fabricated. Treatments that purport to rejuvenate, lift, and strengthen—to transform us into our “best selves,” as Danzinger would quip—are tolerated, even demanded, so long as they make us look more “natural,” where “natural” denotes an ineffable standard of bodily perfection. Hopefully, one day, photographs can reflect the real without caveat; until then, ridiculing Hamilton-esque hack jobs is the best a critic can do.

Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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